Liberty Bell 3rd graders Zoom with author

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Mrs. Watkins’ Wizards Zoom with author-illustrator

by Ricki Stein, Community Engagement Coordinator

With schools closed for the pandemic, teachers were thinking outside the box to find new ways to engage their students online until today, June 3. Melinda Watkins, third grade teacher at Liberty Bell Elementary School, said she enjoyed the challenge of finding such activities, although she missed her class immensely. In mid-May, she and her students Zoomed with professional children’s author-illustrator Tom Lichtenheld.  

The personable author drew a picture to show students how to pronounce his name, shared how he discovers ideas for his books, shared a reading of one of his well known titles with Mrs. Watkins, and collaborated with students to draw a scene with story potential. The prolific writer has published dozens of books and is currently working on about eight that head for publication in 2021.

“I’ve never done an author visit like this,” said Melinda, in her 15th year of teaching overall, 10th in Southern Lehigh. “I mentioned to Sam Hafner [principal] that this virus has made teachers much more open to trying new options. Having a virtual classroom has opened pathways to sharing the world with our kids, which is a positive result of these circumstances.”

Mrs. Watkins does much of her planning with Colleen Pizzo, another third grade teacher. They also collaborate with the rest of the third grade team, which includes Spanish Immersion teacher Elda Garcia, Danielle Lenhart and David Lebourgeois.

“At the primary level, we’ve utilized Seesaw to push out assignments because it was already used in school and students and parents were already familiar with it,” Melinda said. “Assignments are organized on a virtual learning board, which includes a hyperlink to each assignment. We recognize that these months of being quarantined have been challenging as families are striving to juggle distance learning and the rest of their roles. While planning, our goal is to create meaningful and engaging activities in a format that makes it easier for parents and students to have success.”

As the school year wraps up each year, Mrs. Watkins looks forward to including supplemental activities that will leave lasting memories. Because she has a large collection of his books, sharing Tom Lichtenheld’s literature has been a long standing part of her repertoire. With the learning environment changed, she wondered how she could make this time extra special. With the attitude she instills in her students of “You’ll never know if you don’t try,” she reached out to Mr. Lichtenheld’s brother (Ted Lichtenheld), who just happens to be Mrs. Watkins’ brother-in-law! Even though he lives in Geneva, New York, Tom was more than thrilled to join the class for a Zoom session as a special guest speaker.

Once in contact, Tom and Melinda thoroughly planned the session and rehearsed reading alternate pages in Duck! Rabbit!

They planned to record the session so that Melinda could share it with all of Liberty Bell. As many teachers can attest, the beginning of most Zoom sessions is a bit harried until students settle down. In the commotion, Tom accidentally forgot to hit the record button.

“It happens. It was unfortunate, but I completely understand,” she said. “The session would have been a great substitute for a school-wide author visit, which we make a big deal of at Liberty Bell.”

As Tom set up and started in on his first illustration, he invited students to drop questions in the chat section. The students added questions as the lesson developed over the next half hour.

So where does he get his ideas? The author showed students a photograph he took while driving down the road. He saw a little boy waiting by a tree and imagined he was waiting for his brother to come home from school. Tom went home and started sketching, based on the photograph.

As he developed his ideas, he decided to change the little boy to a little girl waiting for her bigger brother, blending a memory from his childhood.

“That’s not cheating,” he said.

“Of course, that wasn’t factual, but,” he said, pulling a business card out of his pocket, “I have this artist’s license that I keep with me at all times. It allows me to change things to make the story more interesting.”

When My Brother Gets Home was one of three of his books released in 2020. Parents can check Tom’s website for all his books. The cover of the book was not his favorite option, “but do we always get our way?” he asked students. “No.”

According to the rest of his presentation, Tom applies his social skills to developing his stories. He writes and draws in ideas he gets from friends, whether they know they are giving him ideas or not. He drew a friend’s favorite car into a story. He drew in a playground set and sliding board in another in which the children in the story imagined they were climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“I have a million ideas and I get them from everywhere,” he said. “I watched a great animated video on YouTube by Ezra Fields that gave me ideas. He used lots of idioms and puns, so I called him up and wrote a book with him. He noted that E is the most used letter, so that’s where E-mergency came from.”

Mrs. Watkins said she had read E-mergency to her students before the Zoom visit. They had been working on idioms, which is a tough concept requiring lots of practice. “When I teach idioms, I find that it is challenging for children. I can see how especially difficult they are for children who do not speak English as a first language and because children in general take things so literally.”

Tom also reads children’s picture books by other authors for ideas. He noted that one author drilled a hole through the book, then wrote every page around it to use the hole as a variety of objects. “Why didn’t I think of that?” he asked.

Tom wrapped up the session by soliciting ideas from the class for items he could draw. In five minutes, he used all the ideas to draw a picture and tell a story. It was remarkable how he tied their random suggestions into a fun story and illustration so quickly.

One reason Mrs. Watkins wanted to offer this opportunity with her class was, “We never know which people are going to influence our passions to do something great.” 

As a follow up, Mrs. Watkins asked students to make thank you cards and send pictures of them to her online so that she can forward them to Mr. Lichtenheld. About her son’s experience, one parent shared, “Baron was so proud of this and worked on it most of the day. He was so excited to draw something to show him. He says he hopes when he grows up he wants to be an illustrator just like him.”

Three Liberty Bell staff members joined the class during the Zoom. They were Instructional Aides Linda Wentling and Maria McCarthy (ESL) and librarian Jessica Dimmig.

As the Zoom ended, Mrs. Dimmig told students, “You are fortunate to have this experience.”

The students wore Liberty Bell attire for the Zoom session. Many, including Mrs. Watkins, wore shirts saying, “Mrs. Watkins’ Wizards” on them. The shirts were funded by the PTA and are worn on field trips and for Play Day. In her classroom, decisions are made collaboratively with her students. 

“We selected this team name because I often tell them that everyone is a genius at something. You just need to find your passion,” she explained.

Melinda discovered her genius for teaching while earning her Bachelor’s and Master’s in Education degrees at Kutztown and West Chester universities. Her love of children took her back into the classroom about 10 years ago, after taking some time off to raise her twin boys, Eli and Matt, now 23. Two summers ago, she and husband Steve welcomed a 5-year-old girl from Nigeria into their home;  they consider her their blessing child. Precious and her mother, Kate, who attends Muhlenberg College, are both like family to the Watkins.

Mrs. Watkins has viewed  this recent time period as a learning experience. She knows first hand how difficult it was to balance her role as teacher with parenting and doing online learning during this pandemic. 

“What schools are doing now with online education has opened my eyes to the struggle of providing equity in instruction for students of all backgrounds,” Melinda said. “We need to be able to offer learning opportunities that are both accessible and meaningful to meet the needs of each individual student. But we also need to balance that with the needs of each home. I am pleased that Southern Lehigh’s decision making has strived to meet this objective.”

Below is Baron’s drawing.

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